After the unprecedented success of last year’s secret screening Lady Bird, the 2018 LFF surprise film has been hotly anticipated. On Friday night it was revealed to be Peter Farrelly’s Green Book, a witty, heartfelt comedy-drama detailing the true story of an unlikely friendship turned road movie in the 1960s deep south of America.
After losing his job as a bouncer at the Copacabana in New York City, Tony ‘Lip’ Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensten) is searching for work in the city to support his wife and two sons. When he receives a call about a doctor who needs a driver, Tony is confident he’s the man for the job. The vacancy leads him to a huge, opulent apartment above Carnegie Hall, belonging to the mysteriously solitary Dr Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), who is in fact a gifted concert pianist. The pair are nothing alike, but through mutual need they strike a deal; Dr Shirley will pay Tony an ample sum to drive him to his tour venues across the south, and ensure that there is no trouble involved. Dr Shirley is under no illusions as to the stir his presence will cause amongst the white southerners they must encounter along the way. What ensues is an initially claustrophobic road trip that develops into an important lesson in understanding for both men.
The two leads are the centre of the narrative, their relationship driving the story and thus our interest. Mortensten is barely recognisable as the beefy Italian-American, whose bad attitude and worse eating habits are a major problem for his new companion. Tony is from a large traditional family, and has a firm (if arrogant) sense of who he is, with little regard for how others view him. Meanwhile Don is a perfectionist in every sense of the word; reflected in everything from his flawless piano playing to his distaste for littering. Mahershala Ali plays the virtuoso to this same perfection. He is complex, critical and stubborn, but also keenly witty. The chemistry between the two actors is the film’s prime achievement – the film’s funniest dialogue is found in moments of inane bickering that punctuate long driving sequences. Though both characters’ personalities are played for laughs, they still feel entirely real, and equally empathetic.
Green Book may not take a lot of risks with its material, and stays more feel-good comedy than incisive drama, but the result is a charming film that still manages to do justice to its incredible real-life basis. In a Q&A after the film, screenwriter Nick Vallelonga, who is the real Tony’s son, recounted how the story had been told so many times in his family, and that he still had the letters Tony had written back to his wife during his time on the road. There’s a clear affection from all involved in making the film, which shines through particularly in the partnership of Mortensten and Ali. As Tony and Don learn more about one another, they learn even more about themselves, and that they could both use a little of the other.
By Megan Wilson
Megan Wilson is a northerner currently studying film at King’s College London, and recently completed a semester at the University of Michigan. She is passionate about cats, old musicals, and turtleneck sweaters, but is not in fact an 80-year-old man. Her favourite films include Carol, Moonlight, Singin’ in the Rain, and Matilda. Find her on Twitter: @bertmacklln